On Election Day, voters in Jefferson and Union counties voted to push their lawmakers to consider taking their communities into Idaho.
The chances of that actually happening remain slim: It would require votes by both Oregon and Idaho legislatures and the U.S. Congress. But that’s not necessarily the goal, at least not yet.
“I’m not really sure what the chances are, if you’re going to put into odds or bet on it,” said Mike McCarter, a retired plant nursery worker and firearms instructor from La Pine who led the petition drive to get on the ballot with the group Move Oregon’s Border. “But if we don’t attempt to do something like that we continue to go down a road of frustration about the state Legislature not paying attention to rural Oregon.”
McCarter and his supporters have been working behind the scenes for several years to build momentum for shifting Oregon’s border to put some of the state’s more rural, and politically conservative, counties to Idaho.
They say that, because state politics are dominated by more populous — and more politically progressive — communities along the Interstate 5 corridor, large swaths of the state are ignored.
“Rural Oregon is really very similar to Idaho counties,” McCarter said on a recent episode of “Think Out Loud.”
“Over the years, they’ve thought of them as their brother," he said. "There’s similar agriculture products, similar timber industries, similar conservative values. Don’t create a new state, but adjust the border so Idaho is a little bigger and Oregon is a little smaller.”
In reality, the state map Move Oregon’s Border supporters want to create would shrink Oregon to just what’s currently the northwest portion of the state, an area running roughly from Eugene in the south to the state line with Washington and from the coast to around Bend in the east.
Similar measures failed in Wallowa and Douglas counties. But the votes in Union and Jefferson counties means local lawmakers must start having twice-a-year conversations with Idaho officials.
It’s not clear what those conversations should entail or how to even begin them.
“I don’t know truly whether my constituents know what they voted on,” said Kelly Simmelink, chair of the Jefferson County Board of Commissioners. “The way it is written, what concerns me, is I’m required to have two meetings a year in perpetuity. There’s no sunset on this deal, and we’ve really been given no guidance about what the meetings are, how they’re held, who’s running the agenda.”
McCarter said he understands Simmelink’s confusion.
“The commissioners really don’t have anything they can discuss or talk about until the Oregon Legislature starts negotiations with Idaho,” he said. “Counties cannot legally secede from Oregon without the Legislature’s approval.”
The Democratic-dominated state Legislature doesn’t seem likely to do that. Still, McCarter thinks the Nov. 3 vote was the first victory in a long process: He’s hoping to push similar ballot measures in 11 other counties as soon as next year.
His vision is to have 22 of Oregon’s 36 counties become part of a new “Greater Idaho,” along with some parts of Northern California. He says that would allow Oregon state leaders — at least the ones who remain Oregon state leaders — to focus on the problems facing urban communities.
To listen to the entire conversation with Mike McCarter and Kelly Simmelink, use the audio player at the top of this story.